Note:  the images of the Argo and the Golden Fleece 
were borrowed from the Bulfinch's Mythology Website.




Chapter 1


A Golden Opportunity


Marrakech, Morocco 1937


Wisps of cloud tugged at the lofty peak of the distant mountain. Shadows played upon its slope, growing darker as the sun sank into the west. This view, framed by the arched window opening, was the first thing that Nick Kismet saw as he peered through the veil of beads that separated room from corridor. The boy tugged at his elbow, encouraging him to enter the chamber beyond. He ignored the boy, choosing instead to complete his surveillance.


Just to the right of the window, lounging on a tremendous divan, and slurping noisily some unidentifiable delicacy, was an enormous Caucasian man. Kismet recognized him by reputation alone as "The Fat Man," a Swiss expatriate who had done well for himself in the North African desert; he certainly hadn't missed any meals. The Fat Man's bulk filled to the point of bursting the stained djellabah which was his only attire, save for a jaunty red fez perched comically atop his porcine head. Wavy, blonde curls strayed from the confines of the cap, and Kismet felt suddenly as if he was staring at an attraction in a freak show; gather round, one and all, and see the world's only four hundred pound infant.


Kismet shook his head to clear the image and looked to the left of the window. A small figure stood with his back to the doorway from where Kismet was watching. Although he could not see the man's face, or hear the conversation that was being exchanged between the two, he knew instantly who the small one was. With a chagrined expression, he stepped forward, brushing the beaded strings aside.


"Hello Boxes."


Every head in the room swung toward Kismet, including two that he had not previously noticed. The latter, big men with swarthy, Moorish features reflexively reached toward the breast pockets of their pin-stripe jackets. Kismet was taken aback by the sudden reaction, but managed to keep his nerve.


The small man jumped in front of them. "Nick! Am I ever glad to see you." He turned to the Fat Man. "It's all right; this is my friend."


"Shame on you Mr. Kismet," clucked the Fat Man in a deeply accented singsong tone. "Sneaking up on people isn't nice." He dismissed the boy who had escorted Kismet, then motioned to the bodyguards, who eased their hands away from their concealed firearms. One of the men, whose jaw bore a long white scar, approached Kismet and began frisking him.


Kismet grunted as the search got too personal then looked over to the small man. "So I'm here, Boxes. What's this all about?"


Before Boxes could answer, the Fat Man spoke. "Your friend owes me money, Mr. Kismet. A great deal of money."


The search turned up nothing; no concealed weapons were hidden in the depths of the well-worn leather jacket Kismet was wearing. Kismet looked as if he had just been called in from a work site; scuffed brown trousers tattered at the cuffs where they were pulled over ancient boots, and a khaki work shirt to complete the ensemble.


Kismet fixed Boxes with an accusing stare. "Still playing against the odds?"


"I hit a run of bad luck," shrugged the small man.


"Well, I don't see how this involves me, Boxes. I'm not your mother."


"Nick, please. Hear me out."


"Your friend begged me to send for you, Mr. Kismet. I would have been content to simply cut off his manhood and make him wear it on a chain around his neck, but he insists that you can help him." The Fat Man smiled and wiped his fingers on the front of his robe. "I trust you can?"


Kismet glanced over to Boxes. "What do you have in mind?"


The little man was still grimacing from the Fat Man's threat, but he looked back hopefully at Kismet. "I've got something you'll want."


Boxes motioned for Kismet to follow him to a table against one wall. The Fat Man struggled to his feet and joined them. Boxes pulled back a covering piece of felt to reveal a small statue, about one foot long and eight inches high. Kismet reached for it and examined it more closely.


"Know what it is?"


Kismet extracted a pair of wire rimmed spectacles from the breast pocket of his shirt, and slipped them onto the bridge of his nose. "Golden calf," he muttered, mostly to himself. "Designed along the lines of an Egyptian apis bull. Disk of Amon Ra, the sun god between the horns..."


He rubbed a finger along the surface of the disk, feeling a faint indentation. He held the statuette up to the light and peered intently at the inscription on the disk. Four characters of Hebrew script were engraved on the soft metal, the four consonants which represented the name of God. Kismet frowned, then turned the statue over and examined its underside.


"On a hunch, I'd say this is a replica of the golden calf, described in the Bible account of the exodus from Egypt. Possibly used by the Hebrews in calf worship ceremonies in Samaria, circa -- oh, say 800 BC." He hefted it, trying to judge the content of gold. "Not very heavy, probably acacia wood, overlaid with gold. Where did you find it?"


"That is unimportant," interjected the Fat Man. "It belongs to your friend; it his is only possession. My sources have appraised the statue's value at two thousand dollars. Mr. Vincini's debt to me is more than twice that amount. He says that you will buy the statue for six thousand dollars. If you do not, I will sell it for what I can get--" He glanced over at Boxes, a gleeful look of mayhem dancing in his squinty eyes. "--And deal with Mr. Vincini accordingly."


Boxes gulped. "Come on, Nick. You know this thing is priceless. Help me out here."


Kismet turned the statue over once more. "Six thousand, huh?" With that kind of money on the line, a more than cursory examination was in order.


"This thing is right out of the Bible," continued Boxes. "It proves that they really did worship calves."


"It would really help if I knew where you got it from," repeated Kismet, carefully pressing a thumbnail against the soft yellow metal. It left a barely perceptible mark, verifying that the gold was of good quality. Nevertheless, something about the statue nagged at him; something was wrong with it.


"Enough discussion," roared the Fat Man, his bulk jiggling as he gesticulated. "Will you pay, Mr. Kismet? Is six thousand too much? How about four thousand, and I let Mahound cut off Mr. Vincini's right hand?"


Kismet ignored the man's tirade, but one of the bodyguards moved closer, as if eager to carry out the mutilation. Boxes continued to plead for him to buy the statue. He turned it over again, once more examining the inscription on the sun disk. He stared at the characters for several seconds before realizing what it was about the statue that had been bothering him. Mentally, Kismet kicked himself for having failed to note the discrepancy in his initial examination. He lowered the calf and turned to the small man.


"We need to talk," he said in a low voice.


"No talk," declared the Fat Man. "Buy the statue now, or he dies. That is a promise, Mr. Kismet. And might I add, that it would be to your own advantage to act quickly."


Kismet glanced at both men, trying to read intent. Someone was perpetrating a scam, and he, Nick Kismet was to be the ultimate pigeon. But who was behind it? The Fat Man? Boxes? Kismet had known the little man for over a decade, and in all that time, Boxes had never deceived him. Sure he cheated at poker, and Kismet had always suspected him of shaving the dice in their back alley crap shoots, but the little hustler had always honored their friendship, and had never scammed Kismet for anything of consequence; certainly not life or death.


He was sure of one thing, however. The Fat Man was not going to let them leave. It was time to take the initiative. Returning his spectacles to his shirt pocket, he faced the Fat Man.


"Well, I don't actually have that much cash with me. Would you accept my I. O. U.?"


The Fat Man gazed back, incredulous. Kismet grinned, then threw himself into motion. Turning on his heel, he swung the statue like a club, catching the bodyguard Mahound in the jaw. The big fellow collapsed backward, dazed but not unconscious.


"Nick, what are you doing?" shrieked Boxes.


As the remaining guard reached for his gun, Kismet hurled the statue at him. The artifact caught the man in the elbow, causing him a momentary paralysis in that arm, rendering him unable to shoot. Kismet leapt across the room, clouting the defenseless bodyguard on the ear. Now nothing stood between himself and the exit.


Boxes seemed to be frozen to the spot where he stood. His eyes flashed around the room, looking first at the Fat Man, then the bodyguards, until his eyes settled on the golden statue, lying on the floor.


"Are you coming?" growled Kismet.


The Fat Man suddenly began crying out for help, but did not move to hinder either man. Boxes threw off his lethargy and dashed across the room, pausing only to snatch up the fallen relic.


"Boxes, that statue--" Kismet didn't finish the sentence as Mahound got to his feet and charged. The small man darted through the beaded curtain, leaving Kismet to face the wrath of the bodyguards alone. Rather than attempt to match the Moor in hand to hand combat, Kismet simply stepped aside at the last minute, sweeping his foot out and hooking Mahound's ankle. The big man plunged headlong into the wall. Kismet vaulted over him and raced after his friend.


He caught up to Boxes at the front door. The little man was panting to catch his breath. Kismet spied his satchel, leaning against the wall where he had left it, and snatched it up, looping the strap over his head. He then took hold of Boxes' arm and dragged him out into the street.


"Which way?" asked Boxes.


Kismet shrugged then chose to follow the street to the right, toward the fading glow of the sunset. A moment later, Mahound and his companion burst from the house and gave chase. The streets were narrow, but thankfully deserted, owing to the lateness of the hour. The two and three story residences seemed to fold over on top of them, reminding Kismet of the subterranean passages in the great pyramid of Giza. He knew that these streets, like some of the ancient ruins he had explored, formed a daunting maze, full of dead ends and unpleasant surprises. He searched his memory to recall the route he had employed to reach the Fat Man's house.


Up ahead, a Daimler sedan was parked, all but blocking the street. A man rested against the front fender of the vehicle, idly smoking a cigarette. The half-finished butt fell from his fingers when he caught sight of Kismet and Boxes running toward him.


A commotion erupted behind them as Mahound, his companion and several other men, undoubtedly the Fat Man's domestic staff, burst out onto the street, shouting angrily and scanning in all directions to locate the escaping duo. Kismet did not look back, but focused himself on darting past the parked car.


When they were a dozen steps away, the motorist suddenly went into motion. Kismet didn't think twice until he saw the man withdraw a wicked looking pistol from a concealed holster. The shape of the weapon reminded him of something he might see in a futuristic serial, a Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers fantasy. It took him a moment to realize that the weapon was a very real Mauser M712 rapid-fire automatic pistol.


"Jesus," he gasped, whirling in mid-step and all but tackling Boxes in his haste to seek cover. He knew the gesture was futile. At less than twenty feet, the man with the pistol could cut them to ribbons.


As Boxes went down, barely aware of the new threat, the golden statue to which he had clung since taking leave of the Fat Man's sitting room, tumbled from his grasp. The relic clanked loudly on the brick surface of the street, and rolled a few feet away. Kismet saw, in the periphery of his vision, the little man struggling to retrieve the icon.


"Boxes, that thing is--"


The Mauser spoke. Loud explosions echoed in the narrow confines as the pistol, which was capable of emptying a forty round clip in less than ten seconds, discharged several times into the air over their heads. The anonymous motorist continued to pump bullets, not at the hapless pair on the ground, but into the crowd of men pursuing them. At least a few of the shots found their mark. Kismet heard cries of pain and cursing as the mob scattered, seeking the cover of doorways and debris. He knew it would not be long before Mahound and his buddy returned fire, placing himself and Boxes in a most unpleasant position.


Why the motorist had come to their assistance, Kismet could not fathom, but when he looked up, he found the man gesturing for them to get in his car. Kismet nodded, and began crawling toward the sedan. For some reason however, his left ankle seemed rooted in place. He looked back and found Boxes clutching his foot.


"No, Nick. This way." Boxes jumped up, the golden calf tucked under his arm, and began running back the way they had come.


"Boxes! What the hell are you doing?" Kismet gaped in amazement as his friend threaded the gauntlet, unmolested by the Fat Man's mob, which apparently had bigger problems to concern them. He turned back to the pistol-wielding motorist, and found that the man's expression was metamorphosing into one of sinister wrath. Kismet was beginning to suspect that Boxes had made the correct decision. "Oh," he muttered, then took off running.


As he darted through the huddled group of men that had now given up pursuit, he heard the motorist barking orders in German. He risked a rearward glance and found that the motorist had not come to the street alone. Half a dozen men in gray suits and crisp white fedoras materialized from behind the car and took up the chase. Kismet swung his eyes forward, straining to catch a glimpse of Boxes, and pouring on a burst of speed. Behind him, the concussions of pistol fire resumed, but now the shooting was from both parties; a small war had begun in the street outside the Fat Man's house. Sparks dancing on the walls to either side of Kismet told him that although he was no longer the primary target, he was still in grave danger of catching a stray bullet. Where in the hell had Boxes gone?




The cry for help, from up ahead and to the left, stretched into three syllables. Kismet spied an intersecting street, and plunged down it, leaving the firefight behind. As he turned the corner, he skidded to a halt.


An old beggar, apparently blind, sat with his back to one wall, oblivious to the violence a block away. He held a long rod in his fingers, and a straw basket lay before him, its lid resting against his knee.


Boxes was not looking at the beggar however, but at his pet. A King Cobra hovered in the center of the street, swaying dangerously from left to right, signaling its clear intent that neither man would get past unharmed. The toothless beggar cackled beside them, mocking their fear, and waved the oblong rod toward them. It was a flute; a snake charmer's horn. If they were to pass by, they would have to give alms to the old coot.


"Boxes," muttered Kismet. "Pay the man."


"Me? I don't have any money. You pay him."


"Oh for crying out loud." He fumbled for his satchel, but the intensity of the cobra's stare was hypnotic, depriving him of volition.


On the street they had left behind, an ominous silence settled. The shooting had ceased; the battle was over. The victorious party, whichever it was, would soon remember the original purpose for their venture into the streets of the city. Kismet knew that time was running out. Biting his lip, he forced his eyelids down, breaking visual contact with the viper. Even his eyelids conspired against him; his fear of what the cobra might do if he looked away nearly overpowering his will to move. Somehow he succeeded. With eyes closed, he turned his head toward Boxes.


Like himself, the little man was transfixed by the cobra's stare. Kismet kept his gaze focused, refusing to believe the hysterical delusions and visual tricks that were played in the corner of his eye. His rational mind knew that the cobra was not slithering closer, even though every nerve in his body screamed that it was. With a slow, deliberate motion, he reached out for Boxes' arm and plucked the golden statue from his grasp. Before the little man could protest, Kismet whirled and tossed the relic into the beggar's basket. The old fellow nodded his head appreciatively and raised the flute to his lips.


"Nick, no!" Boxes darted into motion, crossing in front of Kismet, and reached for the basket.


"Boxes, it's a--" Kismet fell silent as he saw the snake move, and knew that this time, what he saw was no hallucination.


The cobra knew its responsibility to its master. Once something went into the basket, it became the old man's property. Theft was to be punished. With the swiftness of a lightning strike, its fangs bared and dripping, the snake darted for Boxes outstretched arm.


Kismet was faster. A primal urge, like an instinctive reaction, caused him to stab out with his right hand. He suddenly found that appendage wrapped around the squirming neck of eight feet of venomous reptile. Squeezing the serpent, just an inch behind the curl of its jaws, he plucked the animal out of the air, arresting its deadly strike.


Boxes was stunned by the sequence of events, all of which had transpired in the space of a second. With a more subdued movement, he retrieved the statue. "Let's get out of here," he breathed.


Kismet clenched his teeth in frustration as the snake writhed and coiled about him, hissing angrily. He turned slowly toward the old man, breathing a silent moan of terror, and with a weak pitch, tossed the cobra to its master.


Gray suited men appeared in the vacant space behind them, and Kismet heard them communicating with each other in Teutonic barks. Boxes grabbed his arm, breaking the spell, and they took off running. If the cobra's ego was bruised, it recovered quickly, slithering into the street to waylay the new group of passersby.


At the end of the street, Boxes darted to the right, and Kismet was on his heels. Boxes continued to chart a haphazard course through the labyrinth. Kismet was completely turned around now, and the growing darkness increased his anxiety. He knew they needed to slow down, but the gray suited pursuers were relentless. By fair means or foul, they had quickly dealt with the snake charmer and were never more than half a block away. One wrong turn into a cul de sac might prove fatal. There would be no second chances.


Boxes dashed into a narrow recess, and when Kismet followed, he found himself in near total darkness. He heard strange noises in the pitch black ahead, and sensed that something disastrous had befallen his companion.




"Nick." The response was weak, sounding almost distant. It seemed to come from ground level, only a few steps away, but nevertheless sounded as though it came from a tomb. Kismet advanced cautiously.


His right foot came down on nothing, and without warning he plunged forward. His shoulders struck rotted wood as he plummeted into an unseen abyss. An instant later he was laying facedown in something hot and moist. He sat up, shaking his head to clear the sense of dislocation. A moment later, the stench hit him.


"Ohhhh, shit!" he gasped, brushing the streaks of offending matter away from his mouth and nose.


"Nick, is that you? I think we fell into a sewer tunnel."


"Boxes, you missed your calling," replied Kismet irritably. He fumbled for his satchel, opening its flap and sorting through its contents by feel. He pushed past the carved wooden grip and leather scabbard of his Khukuri, touching the hard steel of his Colt M1911A1 .45 automatic pistol. His fingers settled momentarily on an envelope, thick with a bundle of paper; ten thousand dollars in American banknotes, which he had been allotted in the event that Boxes artifact had proved worth purchasing. In any other circumstances, he might have found this turn of events amusing, but sitting in rotting human waste soured his sense of humor. At last he found the object of his search, a small electric lantern, powered by a dry cell. He took it out and flicked the switch.


A beam of light pierced through the steamy atmosphere, picking out a random spot on the curved sewer walls. Kismet swung the beam around until he located his companion. The little con artist had plunged down to his elbows in the muck, searching for something he had lost. Kismet intuitively deduced that he was after the golden calf statue.


"For God's sake, Boxes. That statue is a--"


Another shaft of light stabbed down into the shadows between them. Kismet swung his own light up and found the hole through which he and Boxes had fallen, twenty feet overhead, now ringed by hard looking faces. Three of the gray suited men held lanterns similar to his own. Another man, the motorist with the Mauser, pointed down at Kismet and barked a command to his subordinates. The men looked back hesitantly, but Kismet knew that eventually, he and Boxes would have the pleasure of their company in the reeking tunnel.


"Just help me find it, will ya?"


Growling, Kismet plunged his right hand into the liquid, stirring around until he encountered something hard, but yielding. He closed his fist around the object, silently praying that it was the statue, and withdrew it. Dark matter fell away, revealing golden metal. Boxes snatched it from his hand and jumped erect. The sewage came up to his knees, and hampered his steps. Nevertheless, he started splashing through the tunnel.


Kismet frowned and aimed the light at the surface of the effluent. He detected a faint movement, a gradual flow of the sewage in the direction opposite that Boxes had chosen.


"Boxes! Wrong way. Get back here." He flashed the light down the tunnel until he located the little man, now returning to the spot where they had landed.


One of the gray suited men dropped between them, momentarily losing his balance as he landed. Kismet swung the lantern like a cudgel, catching the fellow with a corner of the dry cell on his temple. Dazed, the man fell back, splashing into the sewage.


The blow to the light had caused it to flare brightly, and Kismet realized too late his foolishness in using their only source of illumination as a weapon. He glanced up and saw another man dangling into the hole, about to drop, and knew that it was time to be moving on. He and Boxes charged into the depths of the tunnel as their foes dropped down to pursue.


If the streets of the city had been a cunning maze, then the underworld below was doubly so. New branches appeared at irregular intervals; sloping conduits dripping with fecal matter and wastewater increased the volume of the muck in which they floundered. Occasional movements, barely captured in the beam of the lantern, revealed that other creatures called this dark place home, but nothing more was seen of them as Kismet and Boxes slogged through. The beams of their pursuers' lights danced like glowing bats against the tunnel walls ahead of them, but served only to increase their haste to escape.


Kismet led them true, following the gradual decline of the city's sewers to its eventual destination. After five minutes of desperate wading and running, he and his companion burst out of their underground prison, and into the open night.


The tunnel exited from a steep embankment, the city walls high above. Below the opening however, was a drop of several yards, ending in a vast cesspool. Boxes gazed dubiously down at the pool, then looked to Kismet. "Now what?"


Kismet was already beginning to climb along the face of the cliff. Boxes attempted to follow, but discovered that the statue he had risked life and limb to safeguard encumbered him.


"Just leave it," shouted Kismet.


Boxes shook his head, stuffing the relic into his trousers, causing his inseam to bag comically. He ignored the discomfort, reaching around the edge of the tunnel in search of a handhold. He reached the perimeter of the cesspool as the gang of suited thugs appeared at tunnel opening. Sliding down the steep face, he dropped at Kismet's side. The golden statue slipped down his pant leg, binding up near his ankle. Kismet shook his head in mock despair, then without a word led their flight into the desert sands.


He was amazed at the relentless pursuit. The identity of the gray suited mob remained a mystery to him, but they were highly motivated. What did they want from Boxes and himself? What would it take to elude them?


He chose to stay close to the city walls. People lived in the wilderness outside the city, and had even joined together in small villages. Perhaps in one of these they would find concealment. A column of smoke against the twilit sky revealed some manner of civilization directly ahead, and Kismet aimed for it. He switched the lantern off, hoping that without its blazing lamp, he and Boxes would be harder to see.


A chaotic barrier of wind-sculpted boulders blocked the way to the source of the smoke. As he threaded through these, Kismet saw a cluster of tents, arranged concentrically around a large fire, in a clearing not far ahead. Near the edge of the camp, tethered to a stake driven into the ground, were a score of camels.


A triumphant grin broke over Kismet's face. That was their ticket out of trouble. He grabbed hold of Boxes' elbow and dragged the little man down into the clearing.


The camp belonged to the nomadic Tuaregs; a tribe of Berber wanderers who roamed the ancient caravan routes in robes dyed with indigo. Though not recognized as a violent people, Kismet knew that they were formidable adversaries when their way of life was threatened. He proceeded with due caution.


A few robed figures moved through the spaces in between the tents, but none seemed to take note of the foul smelling pair that crept toward the camp. Although they were upwind of the tents, Kismet figured that the nomads had already grown accustomed to the stink of the nearby cesspool, and would thus not detect the stench that pervaded his entire person.


A sentinel had been stationed near the camels; a young man, Kismet presumed, though the guard's features were eclipsed by a swath of indigo fabric that veiled his nose and mouth from the blowing desert sand. The youth was huddling himself with his arms due to drop in temperature that accompanied the onset of night.


Reasoning that the wrapped cloth probably limited the sentinel's field of view, Kismet gestured for Boxes to stay concealed, then set out to flank the sentinel. The camels noticed his approach and began snorting as they caught a whiff of his fragrance. The sentinel took note of their behavior, but could not comprehend the reason for their agitation. He began glancing around, fearful of an intruder. Kismet ducked down, his dark, earth colored clothing blending in well with the surrounding sand. When he looked tentatively in the guard's direction, he found that the youth had settled once more, his back turned.


Moving slowly and stealthily, Kismet crept toward the guard, rising to his feet behind the young man. He reached out and tapped the man on the shoulder, and as the veiled head turned to look, Kismet pounded him in the jaw with his fist.


The blow stunned the youth for only a moment, but it was enough for Kismet to leap forward and seize hold of the long swath of blue that formed both veil and turban. A yank on the fabric loosened the wrapping, and Kismet used the heavy cloth to blindfold, gag and hog-tie the sentinel in the space of a few seconds. The young man writhed and moaned on the ground, but his cries for help could not be heard through the blockage of blue cloth between his teeth.


Boxes stepped from his hiding place and jogged over to where Kismet stood. "Nick, they cut off body parts when people steal camels around here."


"Have you got a better idea?" Boxes shrugged, looking behind to where searching flashlight beams roamed the sands to find them. "I didn't think so," concluded Kismet. "But if it will make you feel better, leave that statue behind as payment."


"Absolutely not."


Kismet sighed, then reached into his satchel. He extracted a handful of bills from the envelope, vaguely wondering if the nomads appreciated paper currency, and stuffed them into the folds of the captive sentinels' garment. "Better?"


Boxes nodded.


"Then let's get out of here. Can you ride one of these things?"


"Is it anything like a bicycle?"


Kismet shook his head in despair. "Not remotely."


"Good, 'cause I don't know how to ride a bicycle." Boxes kept a straight face for a moment then cracked a smile. "I'm kidding, okay? Yeah, I can ride a camel. I don't like them, but I can do it."


The little man walked over to the camels, picking one out of the group, and began stroking its nose. After a few seconds, it knelt, allowing him to step on its knee that he might ascend to the space between its humps. With seeming ease, he mounted the dromedary.


Kismet laughed in spite of himself and went to join him. After selecting a mount for himself, he untethered both of their rides and walked his chosen camel away from the campsite.


A warm wind had picked up since the fall of evening, blowing a cloud of dust in its vanguard. The sirocco winds could create a blinding haze of sand, in which he and Boxes might become separated. On the other hand, it might help them to lose their pursuers. He reached into his satchel and withdrew his most prized weapon, a razor sharp Khukuri knife. The fifteen inch long, boomerang shaped blade effortlessly sliced the tether ropes, and he knotted them together in a makeshift line.


"Take hold of this," he said, proffering one end of the line to his mounted companion. "Wrap it around yourself so that we don't get separated."


Boxes took the rope, but seemed hesitant. "Then what?"


"We ride for the coast. Then we find a way back to the States."


The little man inhaled deeply, then breathed out slowly. "I can't go yet, Nick. I still have things to do here."


"Boxes, if we go back, we're dead. If those Germans don't get us, the Fat Man will."


"I have to go alone, Nick. I need you to take the statue back to the States." He let go of the rope end and tossed it back to the other man. "It's important, Nick."


"I don't get it, Boxes. You're going to have to do better than that if you want my help."


"I'm sorry Nick, but I can't tell you any more than I already have. I'm sworn to secrecy. Look; just take the statue back to the States. Put it somewhere safe until I can catch up with you. I'll pay for all your expenses; maybe even a little extra for your trouble." He dug the relic from his trousers and tossed it to Kismet.


Kismet caught the statue with his left hand. Boxes was intent on returning to the city. He knew that the little man was unbelievably stubborn once he made his mind up. He stowed the artifact in his bag, taking his gun out at the same time.


"Hey Boxes." He waved the .45 caliber pistol toward his friend. "You might need this."


Boxes gazed down, his face breaking into a smile of sincere gratitude. He fumbled at his waist for a moment then held up a compact looking automatic pistol; Kismet thought it was probably a 6.35 mm Baby Browning.


"You mean you had that the whole time?"


"Nick, you know I hate violence. This is for emergencies; as a last resort."


Kismet clapped a frustrated hand to his forehead. "Just be careful, will you?"


"You know me, Nick."


"Exactly." Boxes laughed and turned the camel in preparation to ride away.


"Wait a minute," shouted Kismet. "There's something I need to tell you."


The camel halted and its rider turned his upper body to look back. "What's that?"


"The statue. There's no way it's an ancient artifact. My guess is that a very skilled goldsmith made it very recently. An expert job, but he used a style of Hebrew script that is from about a thousand years later than it ought to be. In short, the statue that you refused to leave behind is a fake."


Boxes laughed. "Nick, I knew that."


Kismet was dumbstruck. Boxes laughed again then urged the camel to a gallop. When the cloud of dust left by the little man's exit had been swept away by the desert winds, Nick Kismet, with a fixed look of disbelief, climbed onto his camel and rode toward the last gleams of sunset.




Chapter 2-- End of the Thread


It was not the blowing sands of the Sahara that tapped lightly against the tiny windowpanes of Nick Kismet's basement office, but rather a dusting of grainy, New York City snow. Although it was only five o'clock in the evening, the sky above Manhattan had already grown dark. The snowflakes were visible only in the glare of street lamps.


Kismet disliked winter. The short days made him irritable, the weather, which effectively dampened the sun during what few hours of daylight remained, left him depressed, and the nearness of his birthday, only two weeks away, was a final nail in the coffin of his good mood. Even the approach of the holidays could not lift his gray mood. The solstice, officially welcoming the season, was yet a few days off, but he found himself itching to leave the darkness of the northeastern United States for the longer days and warmer climes south of the equator. Whenever possible, he tried to get away from the northern winters, pursuing projects in the southern hemisphere, but this year would not afford him the luxury. Not that there was any shortage of projects to keep him busy. His desk was full of half-prepared ambitions and explorations, all of which required more research before he could take them into the field. No, this winter it seemed he would do his digging in the fields of academia, though that would also wait, at least until his two weeks of vacation time were exhausted. He was lingering in his office only long enough to see to one final matter. A scrap of paper on his desk, bearing only a few short words, was the anchor that held him hostage to his office. It was a telegram, sent from Washington D.C.:


Back in U.S... Meet you 5 p.m. 12/16...


Bring the package... Boxes.


It was after five, but Kismet was fairly certain that the small hustler would show up here, at his office, rather than at his residence. Boxes knew where he worked, not where he lived. The delay did not trouble him. Boxes had never been one for punctuality. Besides, he planned on making Boxes suffer for his tardiness; the little man would not get his prized statue until quite a few questions were answered. His doing so might cause a delay in his being able to enjoy his vacation, but he figured that if he played his cards right, Boxes would end up springing for dinner.


Kismet rose from his desk and paced around the office. He cut quite a different figure in his two-piece dark blue suit than he had in Morocco. He was taller than average, but not enough so to stand out in a crowd. The cut of his suit accentuated his athletic build, a physique that had suited him well when he was part of the London University rugby team, but which had more than once proved to be a liability when crawling through cramped caverns and narrow passageways in ancient tombs. His dark eyes and unsmiling mouth often gave the impression that he was an intense, humorless person, but those who had earned his friendship occasionally saw a grin that was positively mischievous. He kept his dark hair cut very short, having long ago surrendered in the war of managing his cowlicks; even with his scalp nearly visible through his razor shorn hair, the crown of his head looked like a whirling hurricane. After a single orbit of the office, a tiny space in the basement level of the American Museum of Natural History, he returned to his desk and shuffled papers impatiently.


The sound of a door opening in the hallway alerted Kismet to the arrival of his guest. He idly ran a hand through his short cropped hair, a nervous habit of which he was only vaguely aware, and leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on an open drawer, and tried his best to look nonchalant. The figure obscured by the frosted pane of the door that bore his name, paused outside, and then tried the doorknob.


"Mr. Kismet?"


The voice did not belong to Boxes. Kismet immediately dropped his feet to the floor and sat up. "Yes. Please come in."


The door swung open, revealing a tall man, about the same age as Kismet. The man was well dressed, bundled up against the chill air, and carried himself with the manner of a sophisticate. Kismet searched the fellow's face for some familiarity, and found that he did indeed recognize the handsome features, the wavy blonde hair and the thin mustache, but he could not remember from where. The man approached his desk, extending a hand, which Kismet accepted, standing to greet the newcomer.


"It's good to see you again, Nick," offered the man. Kismet noted the quick speech and the odd pronunciation of the vowels. The accent seemed vaguely British.


"Indeed," replied Kismet, noncommittal. "What can I do for you?"


The handsome face broke into an odd smile. "You don't remember me, do you Nick?"


"Frankly, I--" All of a sudden, he did remember. "Andy? Andy Harcourt." The other's grin verified his recognition. "I suppose it's Andrew now, right?"


"Sir Andrew, actually." Harcourt's voice could not mask the pride with which he dropped that bombshell.


Kismet pointed at him then snapped his fingers. "You are Sir Andrew Harcourt? I've been keeping up on your work, but I had no idea--"


"That your old classmate had done something for himself?"


Kismet spread his hands in defeat. "Congratulations, Sir Andrew."


"Please. We are colleagues. No need for titles between us, right?"


Kismet inclined his head in agreement. "Why don't you sit down. You'll be more comfortable."


"Why thank you. I say, were you expecting someone else?"


"I had another appointment, but it seems I've been stood up. No matter though. Tell me, what brings you calling on a fellow alumnus? Did I miss a reunion?"


Harcourt laughed. "Nothing like that. Actually, I was wondering if I could prevail upon you to join me in my latest endeavor."


Kismet tried to conceal his surprise. "I'm touched, but why me? For that matter, why would you want to include anyone in your project? Why share the credit?"


"Nick, what sort of fellow do you take me for? I'm not in this for my personal glory, if that's what you think. It only makes sense for me to include a representative of the International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquities, to keep everything on the up and up, so to speak. And you do have a reputation for, how shall I say it, delivering the goods? Besides, I need a colleague with a working background in ancient languages, and as I recall, you seem to have a real gift in that regard."


"I can accept that. So what exactly is your latest endeavor?"


"I'd rather show you." Harcourt rose and returned to the doorway. He opened the door and reached into the hallway, taking hold of a boxy leather attaché case, similar in design to the one Kismet used to transport work documents from his office to home and back again. Harcourt's case was in markedly better shape. He set it down on Kismet's desk, folded back the flaps, and reached inside. From its depths, he drew out an object wrapped in cloth, which he laid in front of Kismet. The latter donned his spectacles before unwrapping the parcel.


In the center of the cloth lay a fragment of metal, broken it appeared from an ancient war helmet of Greek design. The piece seemed to have been, at one time, the right forward quarter of such a helmet. Kismet took note of the straight edges, which ran along the bottom and leading sides, curving into an eyehole, then dropping down to shield the bridge of the nose. The metal was scored and dented in several places, suggesting that it had not been a ceremonial helmet, but a utilitarian one. That seemed odd to Kismet, since the Greeks manufactured their armor out of bronze, while this artifact was clearly wrought of gold. The breaking points were jagged, as though the helmet had been cut or torn apart, rather than decaying from corrosion.


"May I?"


"Please do."


Kismet picked the fragment up. Not gold, he thought instantly. Much too light. Yet the artifact had not tarnished at all. He felt a faint residue on the surface of the metal, and noticed a white concentration in some of the cracks. A probing finger wiped the substance away, and when Kismet touched it to his lips, he noted only a salty flavor, not the expected tangy metallic or copper he had expected. He flipped it over, looking at the inside of the helmet.


A tiny patch of gold had been scraped away, revealing a darker metal beneath; tarnished bronze. "You did this?"


Harcourt nodded. "Verifying that it was indeed a bronze helmet."


"And the overlay is gold?"


Harcourt pursed his lips together. "It's not exactly an overlay. More of a plating, actually. Almost as if the outer surface of the bronze were transmuted."


Kismet raised an eyebrow, but did not pursue the matter. He experimentally placed the fragment against his face, trying to imagine how it would have looked on the ancient warrior to whom it originally belonged. "What do you think?"


"Very becoming."


The helmet had been fashioned for someone with a smaller head than his, possibly a youth. "Where did you find this?"


"Unfortunately, I didn't find it, but rather purchased it. If I knew where it had been found, my quest would be far simpler."


"So it could be from almost any site in Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, anywhere really. What makes you think it's from an undiscovered site?"


"I'm surprised you have to ask. That piece is like nothing that has ever been uncovered. It is unique in many ways. Not the least of which is the gold plating."


"That could have been done later. Perhaps the person who sold it to you was trying to increase its value. You know as well as I that the ancient Greeks did not electroplate bronze war helmets."


"Perhaps there is another explanation?" Harcourt's Cheshire cat grin suggested he was about to elaborate.


"Do tell."


Harcourt dove into the case once more. This time he removed not an artifact, but a large envelope. He tossed this over to Kismet, but said nothing as he sat back down.


The envelope contained five photographs. The black and white prints seemed to be the work of a professional; the subject in each was well lit and defined. The pictures were of a single piece of white stone, viewed from different aspects. Kismet spread them out before him like a hand of playing cards then began examining from left to right.


It was unquestionably an artifact, a product of some intelligence, rather than a random occurrence of nature. Like the helmet, the white stone had suffered some trauma, which caused its intended symmetry to be broken. One of the photographs showed the stone laying alongside a yardstick, helping Kismet to understand why Harcourt had not simply brought him the stone itself.


The white stone seemed to be a block, ten inches by ten inches in depth and width, and sixteen inches to the long point of where it had been broken. The damage to the block had cleaved at a forty-five degree angle through length, more or less leaving the other dimensions unaltered.


The fourth picture was a close-up of the stone face, and the photographer had somehow adjusted his angle of view to highlight in shadow a series of carved letters.


"Ancient Greek," murmured Kismet.


"Quite different from the modern style," agreed Harcourt. "Lucky thing it wasn't Linear B. Can you read what it says?"


"The first word is partly damaged, but I would imagine that this is an altar stone, so I would infer that it says 'bomos' or 'altar of offerings.'"


"And the second word?"


"'Medea.' Offerings to Medea?"


Harcourt sat back smugly. "What do you think of that?"


Kismet looked back cautiously. "What am I supposed to think?"


"Oh don't be so coy, Nick. You know as well as I who Medea was. The witch-queen from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Daughter of the king of Colchis, the land where the Golden Fleece was hidden."


Kismet frowned. He felt as if he were treading dangerous ground in talking to Harcourt. He recalled the old adage about a little knowledge being dangerous. "Medea was never worshipped by the ancient Greeks. She wasn't even a demi-god in their pantheon. Merely a character in a story that was a myth even to them."


"I would suggest that the altar stone you see in the photograph proves that someone did worship her."


"Perhaps the stone was a theatrical prop. The legend of the Argonauts was a favorite of Greek dramatists."


"Then the set designer was rather over-eager, don't you think? That stone is white marble, rather expensive and too hard a stone for use as a decoration."


"Touché. All right, someone worshipped somebody named Medea. If it was the same person as the one in the legend, what does that prove? There are thousands of altars, temples and shrines to dozens of gods, nymphs and oracles. Those temples in no way prove that such persons or creatures existed."


"You've gotten ahead of me, Nick. I merely present this to you as evidence of a part of Greek culture into which we previously have not looked."


"And you think there's more to be discovered?"


"I am certain of it." Harcourt sat back and pressed his fingers together. "However, let me return to the subject of Medea as an historic figure. Since history does not record the worship of her, and yet we see proof that she was worshipped by someone, what does that suggest?"


"That she really did exist? You'd better check your facts, Andrew. Medea literally means 'a witch' or 'one who is cunning.' There's nothing to indicate that a woman named Medea really existed. If the character in legend really did exist, it is doubtful that her name actually was Medea, and even less likely that her worshippers would have memorialized her with that derogatory term."


"The word may have been coined because of her."


"No. In fact, it is a Greek word, while the Medea of legend was not a Greek. And use of the word certainly pre-dates the theoretical place in history when the journey of the Argo would have occurred."


"Except for that," snapped Harcourt, seeming to lose his cool. He stabbed his finger at the photo. "An altar to Medea."


"Calm down," soothed Kismet. "You're right. This would seem to indicate that someone worshipped a Medea."


Harcourt stared back, unsure of what to make of Kismet's apparent reversal. "I hope your not patronizing me, Nick." He waited a moment longer, then continued. "I believe that this altar stone, which is incidentally in my possession, is the end of a thread that will lead us through the labyrinth of legend to the truth about Medea, Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece itself.


"To begin with, the legend states that Jason and his companions successfully completed their quest, capturing the Golden Fleece. He also took Medea for a bride, and returned to win back the kingdom to which he was the rightful heir. Some versions even speak of his using the Fleece as a talisman to control the weather or heal the blight upon the land. In any event, the Fleece was certainly a great treasure. Yet, following the end of the tale, there is no further mention of it in the mythology of the Greeks.



"What if there really was a Golden Fleece? What if it was a symbol of powerful magic? What if Medea took the Fleece from her husband, and used it to create a cult of her own worshippers? Do you see where this leads? If we can locate the temple of Medea, from which this altar stone was taken, we may find also one of the most spectacular artifacts in history; the original quest, the Golden Fleece."


"I counted at least three 'what ifs' Andrew. You are basing your entire investigation process on folktales."


"And what if I am? Schliemann proved that the mythology of Homer was a suitable guide book."


"Schliemann found a city, and used the Illiad to fill in the blank spaces. That kind of circular logic might impress kings and make you famous, but it does little to advance the true cause of archaeology. You of all people should realize that Andrew. Or didn't you learn your lesson with the Beowulf debacle?"


"Schliemann's detractors are now mine own, but what does that prove? Merely that the institution of archaeology is governed by narrow-minded men; men without vision. But I assure you I am not trying to make a name for myself. The Fleece is a very important, possibly very powerful artifact."


"Powerful? What makes you think that?"


"The helmet shard. You said yourself that the Greeks would not have been the ones to overlay the bronze. Yet the legend tells how Medea used a magical salve to make Jason invincible; a balm which she spread on both his body and his armor. I contend that the balm she used was derived from the power latent in the Golden Fleece."


"How do you make that connection?"


"First, the Fleece was in the possession of her father. One version of the myth suggests that it was kept in a temple, guarded by an enormous serpent--" Kismet made a face, but did not interrupt. "--And that Medea herself had access to both the temple and its guardian. Moreover, she was a witch. She would have believed that the Fleece had magical properties and would have sought to use it.


"Incidentally, the metal which you take to be gold on that shard is actually an unusual alloy. I've employed chemists who assure me that it is a form of gold, but with unique properties. They cannot say whether it is a naturally occurring metal, but they all agree that nothing like it has ever been discovered."


"Andrew, it seems we've come back to where we started. You still have nothing more to offer than conjecture, based primarily on myths and legends."


"I admit that it is a rough beginning, but the goal is worth the effort if we succeed."


"I still am unclear as to why you want me along. Why not contact England's liaison to the treaty committee? And there certainly must be at least a few British linguists who would jump at the chance to accompany the king's favorite archaeologist on his latest quest."


"Former king, I'm afraid. In truth, his majesty was my only supporter. Since his abdication, I'm not much welcome in the hallowed halls of Oxford. No Nick, in truth, I suspect that you are the only one of my colleagues likely to assist me in this endeavor. You have a reputation for such things."


"I also have an obligation to remain objective. You do too, Andrew. We can't let myths and legends affect our perspective. Archaeology is about uncovering the past; reading history in the ruins and bones of ancient civilizations. It's not about proving pet theories, and it certainly isn't about chasing after magical talismans."


Harcourt suddenly broke into a grin, as if he had won a round in their verbal sparring. He stood abruptly, retrieved the helmet shard and returned it to his case. The photographs he left lying on Kismet' desk. "I'm surprised you can say that after having looked upon the Hammer of Thor."


Kismet felt as though he had been hit broadside; as if Harcourt's words were substantive, landing on him like a ton of bricks. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied slowly, trying to control his expression.


"Oh? I must have confused you with someone else." He picked up the case and strolled toward the door. "Consider my offer to you, Nick. You might still have a chance to be a part of history."


Kismet tried to remain indifferent as Harcourt closed the door behind him, but the moment he heard the Englishman's footsteps in the hall, he jumped up and ran to the door. He opened it just a crack, peering after his departed guest.


Harcourt strode purposefully away, heading straight for the exit. Another man was walking towards him, a short fellow in a charcoal suit with a broad-brimmed black hat. Kismet recognized the smaller man and groaned inwardly. It was Boxes, the last person on earth he wanted to see at this moment. After the taller man had passed by, Boxes paused and looked over his shoulder at the retreating shape. Kismet waited until Harcourt had passed through the building exit before leaving his office and intercepting Boxes.


"Nick," chirped the diminutive con man. "Sorry I'm late, but this weather has slowed things down."


"Boxes, I'm sorry, but this will have to wait." He pushed past his old friend and raced to the exit doors. Harcourt was trudging across the pavement toward an idling car, waiting on the park side of the avenue. The driver of the vehicle, a sleek black 1936 Pierce-Arrow, got out, opening the back door to admit him.


"Hey, what's up Nick?"


A sudden thought occurred to Kismet. "Boxes, did you drive here?"


"Yeah; all the way from D.C. I could sure go for some dinner."


"Fine. You go get something to eat. I need to borrow your car."


"What? Not a chance. We may be old friends, but you're too old, and we're not that friendly."


Kismet frowned. "I'm thirty-seven. I'm not old."




"Never mind. I need to follow that man."


Boxes stared back, his face uncharacteristically serious. "Is it really important?"


"Yeah, I think so."


"Okay. I'll drive you. I owe you one."


"You owe me plenty, Boxes. But thanks."


The black car was turning onto Eighty-first Street as Kismet and his companion left the building. There were only a few other cars parked on the street, and Kismet recognized all but one as belonging to museum staff. This, a 1929 De Soto, he correctly surmised, was Boxes' car.


Although the snow was continuing to fall, creating an atmosphere of limited visibility, the precipitation had failed to accumulate on the paved roadway. Driving conditions would be somewhat hampered by the veil of white powder, but at least the streets would not be treacherous to drive upon.


"Try not to lose them," admonished Kismet as he climbed into the De Soto's passenger seat. "Or let them see us."


"Please Nick," replied Boxes, sounding wounded. He slid behind the steering wheel. "Remember who you are talking to."


The engine groaned to life and Boxes charged away in pursuit of the Pierce-Arrow. Kismet noted with some amusement that the little man beside him was straining to see over the front end of the car. He wondered how Boxes could reach the foot pedals with his short legs, and still watch the road. Somehow he succeeded, driving like an expert auto racer, and without complaining.


"There he is," murmured the small hustler, easing back on the accelerator. "If you want my educated guess, I'd say they're heading downtown."


"What could he want there?" Kismet frowned. "Whatever Harcourt is after is probably somewhere in Eastern Europe. I would have expected him to head for the airport. He'll have to get passage somehow; a plane, or maybe a ship, to the Mediterranean."


"So who is this guy?"


Kismet sat back, rubbing his eyes as if he had a headache. "Sir Andrew Harcourt. He's an archaeologist from London. Up until recently, he was a royal appointee to their Geographic Society."


"So he's in the antiquities business, like you? A competitor, maybe?"


"Andy practices a different brand of archaeology. He develops theories about ancient history based on mythology, the flashier the better. He's more of a treasure hunter than an archaeologist."


Boxes laughed. "Sounds like some professional jealousy here."


Kismet shrugged. "I really don't know him that well. We had several of the same classes together when I went to London University, but that's been, what, twelve years?


"Everyone called him 'Apple Andy' because he was such an apple polisher. It was unfortunate, because he really was a bright, good looking young man. He just couldn't accept that he had what it took to succeed, so he was always politicking to garner favor from the faculty. As a result, he not only alienated his fellow students, but lost the respect of most of the teachers, too."


"Sounds like he did all right for himself."


"Maybe so," mused Kismet. "I wouldn't have picked him to take archaeology seriously; not out of all the other students. Andy seemed destined for something more academic. That's why I never made the connection that Sir Andrew Harcourt, world renowned archaeologist and favorite of the king, was actually good old, Apple Andy.


"Anyway, about five years ago, Harcourt stumbled onto a Saxon burial mound not far from Suffolk, England. He excavated it and it turned out to be a very significant find. His career would have been made at that point, but he took the whole affair a step too far. He tried to link the burial mound with the legend of Beowulf--"


"Huh? What's that?"


"It's an epic poem, written in old English; a fairy tale, about a brave warrior who slew a dragon. Harcourt tried to draw on similarities between the legend and his discovery. I don't think he actually believed that he had found the burial place of Beowulf, but some overeager reporters wrote it that way. Harcourt became a celebrity, even got knighted, but pretty much blew his chances of doing any serious archaeology."


"I don't see why. What's wrong with trying to tie up the loose ends of history?"


"Nothing. But when an archaeologist tries to reconcile fairy tales with known history, he only obscures the truth. Just imagine if I came forward and claimed to have discovered the golden coffin of Snow White. I might get a lot of attention, but the truth of the matter is, Snow White is just a fairy tale. It didn't really happen. So even if I really had found an empty golden coffin, by saying that it belonged to a character from a fairy tale, I would be misdirecting people away from the facts about whose coffin it really was."


Boxes looked unconvinced, but Kismet didn't know how to illustrate the problem in terms that his companion could understand. Before he could continue, the black car ahead of them turned onto Broadway.


"Looks like they are headed for the lower West Side," observed Boxes. "I'm going to pass them."


"What? I don't want them to see me."


Boxes stomped on the accelerator pedal. Immediately, the De Soto charged ahead, closing the distance between the two cars. "They're a lot less likely to realize that we are following them, if we're ahead of them. Just look away as we go by."


Before he could argue, Boxes pulled into the left lane, and drew alongside the Pierce-Arrow. Kismet quickly leaned toward Boxes, placing a hand to his temple, and tilted his head down, as if he were asleep. Through narrowly slitted eyes, he saw Boxes pull up even with the black car, look over to the other driver and wave mischievously.


"Damn it, Boxes." he murmured.


The little man laughed and pushed the De Soto's engine to the limit. The smaller car shot ahead of the more powerful Pierce-Arrow. When Boxes had pulled back into the right lane, he risked a look through the back window. The Pierce-Arrow's headlights were twin spots of brilliance, perhaps a hundred yards behind them.


"Don't worry," said Boxes, trying to soothe his friend. "In a few minutes I will let them pass us, again. They'll never figure it out."


Kismet sighed. It was probably a good plan; he was just irked that Boxes hadn't consulted him first.


"I hate to bring this up," continued the diminutive driver. "But I came to see you for a reason."


"I know, I know. That fake statue. You'll get it tonight. I promise."


Boxes seemed satisfied with Kismet's assurance. "Good enough. Now, this guy we're following, Apple Andy; he got famous, but ruined his credibility. What happened next?"


"Because the king liked him, he was able to get an appointment to the Royal Geographic Society, but he never got the respect of his peers. When the king was forced to abdicate last year, Harcourt lost his only friend in a high place. I don't know if he chose to resign, or was forced out, but that was the last anyone heard from Sir Apple Andy until now."


"Go on."


"Well, he just walked into my office this evening, claiming to have found an historical link to the legendary Golden Fleece."


"Another fairy tale?"


"Exactly. In fact, the legend of Jason and the Argonauts is just about the original fairy tale."


"So what exactly are these Golden Fleas?"


Kismet laughed. "That's 'Fleece' as in sheepskin. The legend tells of a Greek adventurer named Jason who was sent on a quest to find the hide of a golden ram."


"Real gold? It was worth a lot then?"


"Maybe. Some versions of the legend ascribe various supernatural powers to the Golden Fleece; control over the elements, healing, and so forth. In the legend, Jason got together a crew of heroes, including Hercules to sail a ship called the Argo to the land of Colchis. They had the usual brand of adventures along the way, but finally arrived in Colchis. Jason tried to negotiate for the Fleece, but ended up stealing it, with the help of the king's daughter Medea. She was a priestess of the temple where the Fleece was kept, and used her witchcraft to help Jason defeat the Fleece's guardians. They left Colchis with the prize and returned to Jason's homeland where he eventually became king."


"And they all lived happily ever after?"


Kismet chuckled. "Not hardly. There weren't many happy endings in Greek myths. Usually, every one ended up dead. Jason left Medea and married someone else, who Medea murdered out of jealousy. Jason eventually died as a bitter failure, killed when a beam from the Argo collapsed on him." Kismet sighed thoughtfully, gazing out at the passing buildings. "It's the sort of thing that happens to people who spend their whole lives looking for treasure."


"And the Golden Fleece? Apple Andy is looking for it, and you want to beat him to it?"


Kismet looked over at his friend, an expression of disbelief on his face. "No. There is no Golden Fleece. It's just a fairy tale."


"Then why are we following this guy?"


"Because he knows something," replied Kismet gravely. "Something that no one is supposed to know."




Chapter 3--A Tapestry Unravels




From their vantage, half a city block away, Kismet and Boxes watched as the driver of the Pierce-Arrow let his passenger out. Harcourt stood on the wet sidewalk for a moment, looking around at the architecture of the West Village, then turned to face the imposing edifice before which they were parked. He conferred with the driver for a moment, then ascended the steps of St. Joseph's Catholic Church.


"What do you make of that?" whispered Boxes.


Kismet shook his head. "Let's find out."


They had led their quarry for several blocks until Kismet prevailed upon his friend to drop back. The Pierce-Arrow had then taken the lead, continuing straight downtown. The wet snow had grudgingly given way to sporadic drizzle, improving road conditions somewhat, but still limiting visibility in the dark twilight. Boxes had expertly tailed the black car, never once arousing the other driver's suspicion. In the busy streets of America's most populous city, it was far easier for an old De Soto to blend in, than an immaculate, brand new Pierce-Arrow.


Harcourt's driver returned to the black car and drove off, his destination unknown to the pair that now tried to approach the front of the church in as inconspicuous a manner as possible. Boxes led the way, at Kismet's request, for two reasons. First, his face was not well known to the British archaeologist, their only encounter being the momentary passing outside Kismet's office. If Harcourt was waiting just inside the doors of the church, Boxes could warn his friend off before they gave their intentions away. Secondly, Leonardo 'Boxes' Vincini was Italian, ergo he was Catholic.


"No sign of him," whispered the little man, peering into the great hall of the church. "In fact, I don't see anyone."


Kismet pushed inside, closing the enormous door behind him. The enclosure was dark, almost gloomy. A wall of votive candles flickered nearby, but most of these were on their last breath. Kismet walked by the votary, pausing at the border of the colonnade to see if the Englishman was secreted in the pews. Boxes shook his head, as if fearing that they were somehow desecrating holy ground then doffed his hat and went in.


As Boxes had stated, the church seemed deserted. All but one of the confessionals stood wide open and vacant. The pews were likewise empty, as was the area around the altar. A corridor, situated behind the altar, led away from the main auditorium, and appeared to be the only means of egress available to Harcourt. Kismet took a cautious step out from behind the column.


He crossed the distance to the front of the auditorium quickly, straining to hear some fragment of a voice, or noise of footsteps, alerting him to the approach of trouble. Nothing. The church was as quiet as a tomb. Boxes lingered at the font, dipping his finger in the blessed water and crossing himself, then went to join Kismet at the dais. The passageway beyond was deserted.


"We've missed something," muttered Kismet. "Some other way out of here."


"Maybe he's in there," suggested Boxes, jerking a thumb in the direction of the confessional.


Kismet had already considered that possibility, rejecting it as he knew Harcourt was not a Catholic, and therefore unlikely to lay bare his soul to a priest. Nevertheless, he had paused for a moment as they passed by the booth, listening for the Englishman's voice just in case. He had heard nothing. Nothing at all.


"That's it," he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. He darted across the hall, racing to the confessional on the far end, the only one which was closed and apparently in use. He pressed his ear to the thin panel, but heard nothing.


"Jeez, Nick," moaned Boxes. He paused, whispering a silent penitence for having taken the name of the Lord in vain, then returned his attention to Kismet. "You're not supposed to--"


Kismet stepped back then pulled the door open. Boxes nearly came unglued as his friend, to all appearances, violated the sanctity of the confessional. Only the revelation that the booth was empty prevented the little man from exploding in a fit of agitation.


"Get over here, Boxes."


"What are you doing?"


Kismet stepped inside the booth, peering at the screen that separated the penitent from the confessor. "Unburdening myself." Kismet pressed his fingers against the frame of the screen. It popped loose, swinging on hinges into the emptiness beyond.


"Bless me father for I have sinned," remarked Kismet, observing his handiwork.


"That ain't funny."


Beyond the screen was the booth where the confessor sat, but the similarity to an ordinary confessional ended there. The bench had been pushed to the side, revealing an opening in the floor. Kismet stepped beyond the swinging screen and knelt beside the opening. A hinged trapdoor had been lifted up, providing access to whatever lay beneath the wooden floor. The opening was a yard square, and descending from the lip of the aperture was a ladder-like stair, the sort often used to reach attics. Kismet raised a finger to his lips, signaling for his friend to keep silent, then stuck his head into the opening.


He could hear voices, muted by the distance. No one seemed to be guarding the base of the ladder, but Kismet felt a wave of apprehension growing inside him. When he first decided to follow Harcourt, his reasoning had been simple; find out where Harcourt had gotten his information. But secret passageways bespoke a conspiracy greater than he was prepared to face. What was he going to find in that dark hole? Absently brushing fingers through his hair, he gathered his courage, lowered his feet onto the first step and began climbing down.


When he had descended to the point where his entire body was below the opening in the floor above, he paused to look around. The floor was further down than he expected. The room into which he was lowering himself was a vast hall, greater in dimension than the church auditorium above. From floor to ceiling, there was easily thirty feet of space, the uppermost ten feet given to a framework of exposed wooden beams. Three long beams ran the length of the hall, a distance that Kismet had yet to determine, while crossbeams and braces spanned the width every sixteen feet.


The floor below was bare stone, devoid of any chairs or fixtures, but the rough wood and stone of the walls was adorned with tapestries and banners, many bearing heraldic crests from various European monarchies, most of which were no longer in existence.


"Well?" prompted Boxes.


Kismet looked up through the aperture. "I think there's another old church down here. They probably built the new one on top of it, but they still use it as a meeting hall."


"Who use it?"


Kismet shrugged. "I don't know. If you're coming down, try to keep quiet."


Boxes nodded, then repositioned to begin his descent. Kismet took another step down; his feet now level with the rafter works. The nearest long beam, the one running down the center, was only four feet away. In a flash of inspiration, he reached out with his foot. It was a long step, but his foot found a purchase. He released his grip on the ladder, straddling the distance, then transferred his weight onto the outstretched foot.


The beam was almost a foot wide, but he nearly lost his balance as he stepped across. He planted both feet on the beam, flailing his arms one way then the other, until his equilibrium was restored. He remained there for a moment; arms outstretched like a circus performer, letting his confidence rebuild.


"You've got to be kidding," whispered Boxes.


"It's not that hard," lied Kismet grinning. "I'll give you a hand."


"I'll give you a hand," muttered Boxes, balling his right into a fist, and shaking it at his friend. He gripped the ladder with his left hand, then extended his right foot toward the beam. His short legs had more difficulty bridging the expanse, but he succeeded, finding himself in a situation more precarious than he had first imagined. An instant later, Kismet's hand wrapped around his own, steadying him.


"Slowly," admonished Kismet. "I'll pull you over, but if you move too fast, we'll both fall off."


Boxes nodded. "Here I go."


Kismet began exerting a steady pull on his friend's arm. Boxes eased forward onto his right foot, lifting his left from the step. Now, only Kismet's grip held him back from a twenty-foot drop.


As Kismet drew Boxes toward him, he turned on the beam, trying to compensate for the change in his center of gravity. His little friend, sensing that success was imminent, brought his feet together too quickly, causing Kismet to teeter over empty space. Boxes realized his error and tried to adjust, pulling Kismet toward himself. The result was that both men seemed to be engaged in a ritualistic dance, high above the ground. An onlooker would have been amazed that the pair did not fall, but fortunately there was no audience below. After what seemed an eternity of wobbling and flailing, both men got control of themselves and their perch. Boxes spied a cross beam two steps away, and danced toward it, wrapping his arms around the angled braces which ran from the ceiling to the beam. Kismet heard his audible sigh of relief.


"That wasn't so bad, was it?"


Boxes threw him a withering glare. "And just how in the hell are we supposed to get off this thing?"


Kismet ignored him. "Come on."


With considerably more grace than before, Kismet walked along the broad beam, moving quickly from one cross piece to the next. As he did, the sound of the voices grew increasingly louder. After leaving behind three of the crossbeams, he could make out the conversation at the distant end of the hall. It didn't take long for him to realize that he was the subject of the discussion.


"--Did he react?"


Harcourt's obnoxious titter could be heard. "I could have knocked him over with a feather."


"The question is, will he help us?" The speaker's voice was a deep, resonant baritone. Kismet did not recognize the voice, but heard the unmistakable tone of authority it commanded. He knew he was close enough to see the conversants, and that meant he could possibly be seen. Hunkering down behind a crosspiece, he eased out just far enough to survey the discussion below.


There were eight people gathered in the area near the back end of the hall. Four large men who seemed to be on guard flanked Harcourt and the man to whom he spoke. Three of them wore snappy black suits, with the conspicuous bulges caused by shoulder holsters visible beneath their left arms. The fourth was too large to wear a jacket, but like the others sported a leather holster that wrapped around his shoulder blades. This man was unnaturally large, nearly seven feet tall, with bulging muscles and the battered features of a professional fighter. His wild eyes were nearly obscured by the mop of curly hair that fell down over his forehead.


The other two figures in the room were seated in one corner. Kismet could see only their feet, close to the legs of the chairs in which they sat. One was definitely female. He found their lack of activity disturbing, but didn't dare risk exposure by investigating further.


"I don't know. He seemed very upset at the speculative nature of our mission. Perhaps you will succeed in persuading him, where I failed."


The other man sighed, pacing around the area, affording Kismet a chance to see him. He was a tall man, perhaps six inches taller than Kismet himself. A moat of hair encircled a shiny bald dome, then continued down the man's cheeks in a bushy, but well groomed beard. The fellow was stout, on the portly side, but carried himself with a regal posture, apropos of his authoritative voice. Kismet noted that his dark suit was of a style that had climaxed in popularity near the end of the last decade, suggesting that the bald, bearded man had worn his girth proudly for many years.


"A wasted effort," declared the man. Kismet noted also the soft pronunciation of the consonant 'r', and placed the man in an aristocratic New England background. "I should have gone directly to him myself in the first place. But let us focus our attention elsewhere for the moment."


"I see that you have visitors."


"Yes. May I introduce Peter Kerns, formerly Petrunin Chereneyev of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and his daughter."


Harcourt was silent for a long moment. "Is it necessary for them to be tied up like that?"


"Sir Andrew, I don't think you appreciate the urgency of our situation. I require results, and quickly. I cannot invest my resources in the possibility that Mr. Kerns here will cooperate of his own accord. The measures I have taken will insure that he does cooperate."


"Nick," whispered Boxes at Kismet's shoulder. "You said that this guy Harcourt knew something he wasn't supposed to know, right?" Kismet nodded. "Was it some kind of government secret?"


"How did you guess that?"


"That guy down there, the fat one. His name is Halverson Grimes. He was a big hero during the Spanish-American war; an Admiral, I think. Now he's a special advisor to the President."


Kismet looked down at Grimes. Now Harcourt's parting shot in his office made sense. Someone within the government had leaked that tidbit of information to Harcourt in order to help him recruit Kismet's assistance. But why did the former Admiral Grimes think that he was essential to the recovery effort? For that matter, why was the rotund presidential advisor interested in an ancient Greek legend?


"Grimes is a die-hard anti-Communist," continued Boxes. "Hates the fact that so many Americans are volunteering to fight the fascists in Spain. He believes that America should ally itself with the imperial nations of Europe, in opposition to rising communist powers. As you can guess, that viewpoint is not the most popular with the President."


"How do you know all this?" whispered Kismet over his shoulder.


Boxes registered a blank expression for a moment. "Gee, Nick, don't you read the newspapers?"


Kismet shook his head in amazement. "I thought I did," he murmured to himself, then focused his attention on the conversation below."


"My investigators," Grimes was saying, "have traced the sale of the artifacts back to Mr. Kerns. It seems that before he left his homeland, Kerns-- or should I say Chereneyev-- was a prominent petroleum engineer, and a good communist. Then, without warning, he emigrated to the United States, changed his name, and sold a number of ancient Greek antiquities, for a great deal of money."


"You found it didn't you?" accused Harcourt.


There was a moment of muffled speech, in which Kismet assumed that the prisoner's gag was being removed. Then, a thickly accented voice replied: "Please, don't hurt us. I'll tell you where to look."


"You'll do more than that Comrade Chereneyev." It was Grimes that spoke, filling his last two words with contempt. "You will direct Sir Andrew to the site where you discovered the artifacts. If you attempt to mislead him, I assure you that the consequences to your daughter will be most grave."


"Yes. Very well, I will show you. Only please do not hurt--" His words were silenced as the gag was returned.


"Mr. Kerns has already given us quite a lot of information," continued Grimes. "I've seen to your travel arrangements--" The burly guards now moved toward the seated captives, loosening the bonds of the one clad in trousers. He was helped to his feet and half dragged to stand beside Harcourt. The other captive, presumably Kerns' daughter was left alone.


Kismet leaned back. "Boxes, Harcourt is about to leave. Get back to the car and wait for him to come out. Then follow him, find out where he's going."


"Okay. Then what?"


Kismet pursed his lips in thought. "Have you got any money?"


"Yeah. I've got the money I promised you for the statue."


"Give it to me."


"What? Not until I've got the statue."


Boxes' whisper was growing louder, and Kismet feared he might attract the attention of the men below. He took deep breath. "I might need some extra money to get back. I'll meet you at Mama Rosa's at midnight. You'll get the statue then."


"I'd better," grumbled Boxes. "Here's five hundred. You can have the rest when I have the statue."


Kismet pocketed the money. "Fine. Now get going."


"What about you?"


"I'm going to get the girl."


"Always thinkin' about the dames," grinned Boxes. "Good luck, Nick."


"You too, Boxes." Kismet watched as the little man scampered down the length of the beam.


Harcourt and Grimes continued to converse, discussing details about the impending expedition, without ever revealing the ultimate destination.


"I have a few matters to attend to before I can join you," revealed Grimes. "Foremost of which is to persuade Nick Kismet to lend his assistance in our project."


"I still fail to understand why you want Kismet along," complained Harcourt. "He's entirely too skeptical."


"Thank you for your opinion, Sir Andrew," was the caustic reply. "In the future, refrain from offering it until you are asked to do so."


The group began moving down the length of the hall, passing directly beneath Kismet. He threw a backward glance to see if Boxes had already made his escape. The little man was struggling to reach the ladder, but Kismet saw him swing across to the steps and vanish through the opening. Ten seconds later, Grimes and Harcourt, along with a submissive Kerns and Grimes' retinue of guards, stopped beneath the ladder.


Kismet could no longer hear the conversation of the men, but saw Grimes gesturing to the gigantic man, directing him and another fellow to return to watch over Kerns' daughter. As the two guards wandered back through the hall, Harcourt and the others commenced ascending the ladder.


Kismet quickly slipped past the crossbeam and walked down the long beam until he reached the last of the crosspieces. He stepped through the system of bracing beams, perching on the other side, directly above where Kerns' daughter sat, bound and gagged, in a chair. Beside her, the slack ropes that had restrained her father were loosely cast upon his now vacant seat.


He could not see much of Miss Kerns, only her silvery blonde hair cascading over what appeared to be flawless pale skin. She did not struggle against her bonds, but it was clear to Kismet that she had not surrendered to the idea of captivity either. Her eyes darted warily around the hall, following the approach of the giant and the other guard.


The two men paused, waiting until the last of Grimes' party had exited through the opening above. Kismet also waited until they had left, weighing the options that were open to him.


"Guess what, missy?" grunted the smaller of the men below Kismet "As soon as your daddy gets on that plane, me and Rudy get to have some fun with you."


"Fun," echoed the giant, Rudy. "I get to break your neck." Both men laughed as if they had reached the very summit of humor.


Kismet fished in his pockets until he found a coin; a buffalo nickel. That ought to do the trick, he thought. He counted to ten, then hurled the coin down the length of the hall. He heard a metallic clinking as it struck a beam, fifty feet away, then ricocheted hitting a second beam. A second later, it clattered on the stone floor. The attention of the guards was immediately diverted.


"What was that?" asked the smaller guard, who was apparently the smarter of the pair, and therefore the leader. "Go check it out, Rudy."


Rudy grunted, nodding, and stalked off to investigate. The other fellow moved around to stand behind Miss Kerns. Kismet waited until Rudy's footsteps were barely audible then dropped from the rafters, directly onto the black suited guard.


His feet struck the man between the shoulder blades, instantly slamming him to the floor. When the guard went down, Kismet lost his balance and went sprawling, twisting his ankle in the process. The guard lay prostrate on the ground behind him, clutching his chest but unable to catch his breath. Kismet ignored the pain in his foot, and rolled over, striking the stunned guard behind the ear. Two more similar blows rendered the man unconscious, but the commotion did not go unnoticed by Rudy.


"Frank?" called the giant, turning around. "Where are you Frank?"


Kismet ducked behind the tied captive, but could do nothing to hide the slumped form of Frank the guard from Rudy's view. He could hear the giant's steps growing louder, but apparently Rudy did not comprehend that there was an intruder in the hall. As the big man drew near, Kismet crawled around to the other side of the hostage, keeping her between himself and Rudy. The giant never saw him, but the bound girl did. She caught his eye, and Kismet was virtually paralyzed by her beauty. Her eyes were liquid black, almost haunting against her delicate white skin. She was lovely in the classical style of Czarinas of Russia, a living treasure of greater value than any bauble he had ever recovered. He risked a quick smile to the gorgeous creature before which he knelt, then reached out to take hold of the empty chair beside her.


Rudy was standing over the prone shape of his companion. "Get up Frank," he admonished. "Quit playing games."


Kismet stood up silently, lifting the sturdy chair over his head. Rising onto his toes, he brought the chair down on Rudy's cranium with such force that the wooden seat broke apart in his hands. The blow drove Rudy to his knees, and a triumphant Kismet tossed the fragments of his makeshift weapon aside. In the corner of his eye however, he saw the giant Rudy climbing to his feet, apparently unhurt. The big man turned around slowly, breathing heavily like an enraged bull.


Kismet found himself staring, first at Rudy's sternum, which was at eye level, then up into the giant's crimson eyes. Rudy's fingers were flexing, curling into fists that resembled sledgehammers.


"Oh, boy," muttered Kismet, glancing around for some weapon to use against the moving mountain that now advanced on him. There was nothing to use; certainly nothing that could make a dent in an adversary as formidable as Rudy. With a grim expression, Kismet raised his own fists, aware of how pathetic his defense must seem to the giant.


Rudy glanced at Kismet's fists, laughing. Nevertheless, the big man was wary of his opponent, refusing to let his size lead him into the trap of overconfidence. If Rudy was in most ways mentally deficient, in matters of combat he was a genius. Fortunately for Kismet, he failed to see what his opponent was up to. Rudy followed the leading of Kismet's fists, edging closer. Kismet feinted, but as Rudy moved to block the punch, Kismet kicked him hard in the crotch.


Rudy grunted, but shook off the effects of the kick, which had left Kismet's twisted ankle too tender to support him. The latter hopped back a step, shaking his head. "Why doesn't that surprise me," he muttered.


Rudy was in pain, but agony affected him differently than most men. Pain was like fuel in the engine of his fighting machine. Intent upon dismembering Kismet, he took a step forward.


Suddenly, the giant pitched forward. Kismet watched him plummet, like a felled tree, then realized what had happened. As Rudy had passed the bound girl in the chair, ignoring her, as she posed no immediate threat, she had stuck her foot out, snaring his ankle and tripping him up. Kismet darted forward, pouncing on the giant's back, raining blows with fists and elbows at the base of Rudy's neck.


He knew, even as he struck, that his strength was insufficient to overpower the giant. He could feel Rudy's muscles bunching beneath him, building up, like a volcano, for a titanic eruption of destructive power. Rudy roared to life, pitching Kismet off of him. The latter rolled away, coming to rest against the motionless form of Frank.


Rudy rose to his full height a second time, casting a scornful glance at the woman who had felled him. With palpable disdain, he lashed a foot against the leg of her chair, causing it to tip backward. Unable to catch herself, Miss Kerns fell backward, hitting her head on the stone floor.


Kismet thrust his hand into Frank's jacket, then turned to face Rudy. The giant stopped instantly as he found himself staring into the barrel of a Smith & Wesson forty-four-caliber revolver. Kismet thumbed the action back, and jammed the weapon into the giant's chest.


"Tougher than her, but are you tougher than this?" snarled Kismet, surprised at his own ferocity. He was mad at the giant, if for no other reason than the brutal attack on the helpless girl. "Down on the floor, hands behind your head."


The glowering behemoth complied, sinking first to his knees, then lying flat on the stone surface. Kismet kept the pistol ready for use, fully intending to shoot if Rudy should show the slightest aggression.


He transferred the gun to his left hand, and fished a folding Buck knife out of his right trouser pocket. Opening the pocketknife proved awkward, but after a moment of fumbling, Kismet succeeded and quickly sliced through the knots that held the girl. She flexed her fingers, trying to restore circulation to extremities that had been rendered motionless for several hours. She then tore the gag out of her mouth.


"Petranova," said Kismet, without looking at her. He continued to address her in Russian. "Are you injured?"


"I am not harmed," she replied. Her voice was as beautiful as the rest of her, even when pronouncing the ungainly syllables of the Russian language.


"Will you take the gun so that I may bind this man?"


She nodded, extending a palm to Kismet.


"Are you able to shoot to kill if necessary?" pressed Kismet, unready to surrender the weapon.


"I may shoot this dog even if it is not necessary," she snarled, directing her venom toward the prostrate giant.


Kismet found her rage reassuring. "I implore you not to shoot unless you must. The sound might raise the alarm and bring his companions."


"I would like to shoot them also, but there are not enough bullets. Do not fear. I will not shoot unless he moves."


That was good enough for Kismet. He passed the revolver over to the young woman, then knelt beside Rudy. His first act was to remove the giant's sidearm from his shoulder holster, tossing the pistol behind him toward where the girl stood. He then indelicately grabbed Rudy's wrists and forced them down to the level of the giant's waist. Using the ropes that had bound Peter Kerns only minutes before, Kismet tied Rudy's hands together, pulling the knots hard enough to cause the giant to wince. He resisted an impulse to kick Rudy, choosing instead to properly greet his new companion.


He found himself staring into the muzzle of the gun. He frowned, wondering if this were her idea of a joke. "That is not a wise thing to do, Petranova. Please lower the gun."


"My gratitude to you for rescuing me, chekist. But it is you who has acted unwisely in giving me the gun. I will not permit you to hold me captive, any more than I would surrender myself again to these men."


"You don't understand," replied Kismet. "I am not a chekist agent. I am an American. My name is Kismet. I am trying to help you."


"Kismet?" Comprehension dawned in her eyes, and she smiled wryly, switching fluidly into English, without a hint of accent. "Doesn't that mean something?"


Kismet raised an eyebrow, then broke into laughter. "Yes, it does. I didn't know you spoke English, but may I say, you speak it quite well."


"And you speak my tongue like one borne to it." She lowered the gun, offering it to him.


Kismet took the revolver, easing the action down so that an accidental discharge would become less likely. "What is your name Petranova?"


"Irina," she replied. "Only now it's Irene; Irene Kerns."


"A pleasure to meet you, Irene. Now, I suggest we make our exit while we still can." He glanced around, noting for the first time since making his drop from the beams overhead, the enormous tapestry that dominated the end of the hall. It was a heraldic crest like many of the others, one that Kismet recognized. Interesting that this one should be so prominent, he mused to himself. The tapestry was weighted at the bottom, hanging all the way to the floor. The ornate center of the banner rippled and pulsated, as though the wall was a living creature. Kismet watched the rustling of the cloth, but felt no movement in the air of the great hall.


"And what should I call you, Mr. Kismet?"


He took her hand and began walking back toward the stepladder. "Nick, is fine." He tightened his grip on the revolver, a sudden sense of foreboding creeping over him. Everything he had discovered since making the decision to trail Harcourt had pointed to a larger conspiracy. The tapestry was another link in that chain. He was beginning to get the feeling that he was in over his head. He wondered if Boxes had gotten away safely?


Approaching the ladder, Kismet peered upwards. The aperture above was dark, revealing nothing. He jammed the revolver into his belt. "Wait here."


He ascended quickly, realizing only when he was nearing the top that the trapdoor had been lowered into place. He climbed up until he could lift the barrier out of the way.


The ladder trembled faintly, and Kismet looked down to find Irene beginning to ascend. He groaned at her impatience, then resumed pushing the trapdoor up. It was heavier than he expected, but a great heave lifted it up. Once it started moving it opened quickly, flying out of Kismet's grasp and slamming against the floor of the confessional booth. He winced at the loudness of the sound, then took another step up, his head rising above the level of the floor.


Halverson Grimes stood in front of the opening. Behind him were half a dozen men, uniformly dressed in black suits with matching fedoras.


"Oh." Kismet didn't know what else to say. He looked down, his own body blocking his view of Irene. "Get off!" he hissed.


"What?" Irene was completely oblivious to the threat above. She took another step up.


"Unless I miss my guess," Grimes pontificated. "You must be Nick Kismet. A pleasure, sir. We need to talk." Two of Grimes' men pushed past their leader, moving into defensive postures.


"Indeed, Mr. Kismet. There is great deal to discuss."